Every year, many of us resolve to improve our health — by losing 10 pounds, hitting the gym more often or quitting smoking. All are valuable goals. But our mental
health also deserves attention.
“Your mental health is crucial to your well-being and happiness.
If you are not mentally healthy, it will take a bodily toll,
” says Jon Allen
, PhD, a senior psychologist at Menninger. He adds that physical and mental health are inextricable — for example, lack of sleep is associated with depression, increased stress and anxiety, and exacerbates existing mental illness. On the flip side, exercise helps improve mood and can lift depression.
To improve your mental health, Allen recommends a “body first” approach, which includes getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. And we can do even more to improve our mental well-being. Here are some simple strategies that can make a significant impact on your mental health this year.
Accept what we can’t change. This time of year, we make lofty resolutions and seek quick changes to fix our problems, setting ourselves up for failure (think of gyms packed full in January, but empty by February). Our time might be better spent cultivating acceptance of what we can’t change, like a big city’s traffic jams, or a perceived physical flaw, says psychologist Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP, Menninger’s director of Psychology. “Very often positive mental health involves coming to terms with our weakness and shortcomings, and accepting that none of us is perfect,” Ellis says. It’s not easy, he admits, and requires practicing mindfulness, and learning to live in the present moment.
Develop a commitment device. If you do decide to make a change, automate it with a commitment device — a way to lock yourself into an action and help you meet your goals. Clients in Menninger’s Pathfinder program, a community re-integration program, often use this technique to incorporate mentally healthy behaviors in their lives. For example, clients who want to commit to an exercise plan may have a friend come pick them up for workouts, says Brad Kennedy, director of Rehabilitation Services. “We also have some clients who participate in an early morning meditation group at work. They keep their work clothes at work, to compel them to come into work early and attend the group, instead of sleeping in.”
Spend time near someone your trust. “Research shows that just being in the presence of someone we trust is the most powerful way to reduce distress,” Allen says. Most advice to improve mental health focuses on individual efforts at self-regulation — exercising, meditation, relaxation. Although such methods are very important for all of us, “they are not as effective as interpersonal regulation of stress. We do our best when we outsource our stress regulation to trusted companions and confidants.” For people who don’t have strong relationships, Allen says a good way to forge connections is to join a structured group, such as church or community group, a club organized around a hobby or interest or a 12-step group or support group for people struggling with substance abuse or mental illness. A trained therapist also can provide guidance on building and nurturing relationships.
Find a purpose and spend time nurturing it. Philosophers throughout the ages, including Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, have singled out love and work as central to good mental health. The same holds true today. Love doesn’t have to be romantic; it can be spiritual in nature, or directed toward family, friends or a shared purpose. Allen says work can be done in the pursuit of money, but it doesn’t have to be paid, as long as it is some form of “productive engagement,” such as taking care of family, volunteering in the community or following a creative pursuit. “A sense of purpose is essential to mental health,” Ellis adds. “Patients often talk about a feeling a sense of meaninglessness in their lives. If there is not a sense of meaning and purpose, it is very difficult to be happy.”
Improving mental health is not always easy, Ellis emphasizes, and sometimes it helps to enlist the help of a mental health professional. But progress is within our power. “There is a strong correspondence between the things we do and how we feel. How we process information and how we take action in our lives impacts our mental health. In other words, our biochemistry is not fate. There are ways we can work through adversity and feel better.”